The Hidden Black Sea with SAGA Spirit of Adventure
by: Bob Braban - Editor Travelwatchdog.com
Spirit of Adventure - The Hidden Black Sea
A story of Profit taking precedence over Quality
When SAGA first came into the market, it worked hard to promote and deliver a wide range of services to people of retirement age. Shrewd directors realised that a great deal of the nation's wealth sits in the bank accounts of the elderly, who also enjoy the time to spend it. The SAGA board of the day realised that age also brings wisdom and that to attract spending from this group it was essential to offer value for money. The elderly can be extremely loyal to those who treat them with respect; they are also very slow to forgive those who do not!
Over the years SAGA was extremely successful in building up the 'we cater for the elderly' brand and provided excellent 'value for money across a range of services from insurance to holidays; then it all went wrong! Subsequent SAGA policy makers apparently decided that they had large numbers of 'sticky customers' who would not take the trouble to check prices and change providers. Insurance prices in particular went from very competitive to very expensive and, of particular interest in the context of this article, holiday prices also increased. Moreover, SAGA has decided to try to exploit the wider market by promoting services to younger age groups. Unfortunately for the company, the marketing strategy of their predecessors was so successful that the brand image is irrevocably stuck in the minds of the travelling public and attempts to disguise Spirit of Adventure as other than a SAGA cruise failed miserably, with damaging consequences for those on the cruise. Inevitably, they have failed to attract the youngsters and are alienating their stock clients; the elderly.
For the traveller, a journey around the interesting area of the Black Sea other than by cruise ship would be a difficult one. This cruise out of Istanbul calls at: Sinop and Trabzon - Turkey: Batumi - Georgia: Sochi - Russia: Yalta, Sevastapol and Odessa - Ukraine: Constanza - Rumania and Varna and Nessebar - Bulgaria. These are all interesting destinations and offer a diverse range of cultures and experiences. What could possibly go wrong?
The Ship and Customer Expectations
Spirit of Adventure was built in 1980 and was operated until 2004 by Peter Deilmann, Germany's luxury cruise line. Now operated by SAGA as Spirit of Adventure, this is a most enigmatic cruise ship with a maximum passenger capacity of c350 passengers. Luxury is a key word in cruising. It is a comparative word, but one that usually means that cruise passengers will enjoy superior cabin accommodation, amazingly high quality food and well furnished, appealing public rooms. Inferiority in any one of these areas makes the experience simply ordinary. The cabins on 'Spirit' are tired, but adequate. From the author's standpoint they are perfectly OK as sleeping accommodation; although a little shabby, they are comfortable, clean and well furnished. However, unlike a lot of travellers we spend very little time in the cabin and demand high quality public rooms. Unfortunately, the public rooms on 'Spirit' are woefully small for 350 passengers and for the first cruise ever we encountered a main lounge, part furnished with blue canvas directors'/deck chairs as the only way in which the requisite numbers of passengers could be accommodated at peak times.
The food was of a very high standard, but with a single sitting for dinner (6.30 to 9 p.m.) there was serious overcrowding with many passengers each evening being unable to get into the dining room until 8.45 p.m. The staff were excellent and rushed to clear and reset tables, but miracles are just not possible. In the secondary dining facility, offering approximately the same choice of food, there was a little less congestion, but at all meals there was an embarrassing shortage of dessert and tea spoons; often meaning a wait while staff recycled those that had been to be washed. A senior staff member let slip that the spoons and a quantity of glasses had been ordered from SAGA in February 2008, but had not yet been delivered by mid-September.
Top Quality Crew
Captain Frank Allica and his crew were unreservedly the best we have encountered on any cruise, despite the 'tips' being included in the ticket price, a regime that most cruise lines maintain will result in lower standards. Patently rubbish! They were to a member attentive, fast, polite and very eager to please. When you consider this against the background of mostly very elderly passengers from the stockbroker belt, many of whom
Traditional Dancers - Bucharest
Varna - Bulgaria. A St Bernard at an upstairs window dreaming of the days when he used to deliver Brandy
Young Dancers - Trabazon - Turkey
Joseph Stalin - At work at his Dacha in Georgia
Trabazon Turkey - The prison wall partly constructed using Roman columns from and old Roman building!
N.B. If you are a SAGA 'sticky customer' a look at the market is well overdue
consider age and wealth to give licence to be rude to others, their willing service is even more remarkable. It was in the passenger area that 'Spirit' suffered greatly from failure to shake off the SAGA marketing image. Despite being advertised as a cruise for over 21s, 'Spirit' passengers were typically very old and many of them infirm to some degree or other. The young couple of about 45 years stood out in the crowd! Overcrowding on the ship was certainly not helped by this lack of passenger mobility and just a single lift. If you exited your cabin at the wrong time you could have a very slow journey to wherever you were headed. One wonders how it would be possible to evacuate the ship in the event of an emergency. Even with the emergency drill, details of which were known to all passengers in advance, progress to the muster station was worryingly slow.
Included port excursions on this cruise are without exception, excellent. The one real blot was a paid excursion where the guide, a young student, patently failed to communicate with the group during the whole period of the trip. On the minus side, the lecturers on this cruise were unusually poor. All eminent scholars, one could understand why they had been engaged, but had clearly not been auditioned. Almost without exception they were rigid behind their lecterns and not able to engage the audience. Their skill at passing facts to students may be high-grade; their skill as entertaining lecturers was not. There were also major difficulties with the Pursers office where passengers would normally expect to able to secure local currency. Any enquiry on 'Spirit' was met by the reply 'they take Euros'. True, in some places they do take Euros for large purchases, but at a very poor rate of exchange. The Purser has obviously never tried to use Euros to purchase a c20p cup of coffee in Georgia ! They don't even know what a Euro is!
Evening entertainment was of mixed quality, as is normal on small cruise ships. Cruise Director, Neil Horrocks is outstanding as is the 'Spirit Quartet' comprising four very talented musicians from Minsk. The other featured artists were pretty average and would not really attract a paying audience. However, locally engaged entertainers in a couple of ports were top class. What is quaintly known as the cruise enhancement programme; deck quoits, bridge, quiz games etc. are normally a big feature of cruise ships, but less so on 'Spirit' due in part, we deduce, to the age of the passengers who are more difficult to engage. The Cruise Director's staff is very hard working, but this is probably a task too far.
Costs and Value
SAGA cruises are generally a great deal more expensive than many other lines. Part of this is due to the 'sticky customer' syndrome borne of the reputation of SAGA to be better at looking after the elderly than other lines. The company would claim that inclusion of excursions and gratuities is responsible for the higher price, but even when these are factored into the equation, they are still some 25% more expensive than their competitors.
Is it value for money? With a maximum passenger load of about 275, if you can get a 25% discount 'Spirit' probably shapes up against its competitors, but there is much better value in the market place. Degradation of facilities on this cruise, due to overcrowding, means that SAGA should offer compensation to all passengers of not less than 20% of the cost. It won't repair the damage, but it will show good faith.
If you take a SAGA car transfer, check at least twice before departing; ours was two and a half hours late on the return pick-up, due to an error in the Spirit of Adventure administrative offices!
Not choice, but habit rules the unreflecting herd.
William Wordsworth (1770-1850)